A Transformation of the Memorial Site in Katyn

Tomas Sniegon
14 Jun 2019

The sign at the entrance of the Katyn Memorial (2018).

► In the wake of the deterioration of relations between modern Russia and Poland, the Katyn memorial has become a scene for the contestation of historical memory. In order to play down the 1940 executions of Polish military officers in Katyn, the Russian government has granted belated official recognition to 8,000 victims of Stalinism in the Smolensk region. After being brushed under the carpet in the Soviet Union and for nearly the first three decades in post-Soviet Russia, their suffering has now been instrumentalized in the memory war between Russia and Poland.

In today’s Russia, just as in the Soviet Union, official memory of the Second World War is reduced to the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and Soviet suffering. The disturbing developments of the preceding years (1939-1941) have deliberately been downplayed. In this context, the 22-hectare memorial cemetery in Katyn, near the Russian town of Smolensk, is a very special memory site. Linked to the first two years of the Second World War and, therefore, the pre-Great Patriotic War period, it not only binds Hitler’s Nazism inextricably with Stalin’s Communism but also—and equally closely—connects the two most brutal catastrophes that took place on Russian territory: the Second World War and Stalin’s terror.

Earlier analyses of the evolution of Russian memory of the 1940 Katyn massacre, including the 2012 collective volume, Remembering Katyn, covered first and foremost the period up to 2010. In this text, I focus on more recent developments in Katyn, particularly in the period since the Russian annexation of Crimea, as well as radical changes in Poland since 2015 when the conservative Law and Justice party began to dominate the country’s politics.

Katyn in History

In the spring of 1940, 4,415 Polish army officers were killed by the NKVD near the Russian city of Smolensk. They were executed by members of the Soviet state security and political police forces, which managed the forest territory where the killings took place. These officers were brought from a distant concentration camp, where they had been kept after being captured following the Soviet annexation of part of Polish territory in 1939. The crime was supposed to remain secret, but the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 brought it to light. The dead bodies, in Polish military uniforms, were accidentally discovered by the advancing German army.

As the Russian historian Oksana Kornilova has recently shown, the original German documents did not trace the crime to Katyn, but to the village of Koz’y Gory (the Goat Hills). However, Nazi propaganda found it more expedient to say that the crime had taken place in the nearby Russian village of Katyn, since its name was similar to the Polish word kat, meaning “executioner” or “killer” (a meaning it also has in Russian, albeit that the word is obsolete). Thus, Katyn came to play a significant role in German propaganda—and after the war, it became a major symbol of Stalin’s terror during the war period.   

"President Yeltsin, during his 1993 visit to Poland, paid tribute to the Polish victims by laying wreaths at the Katyn cross in Powaski cemetery in Warsaw."

The Soviet Union could not deny that Polish officers had been killed on Soviet territory, but until 1990, if the Soviet authorities mentioned Katyn at all, they laid the blame for the crime at the door of Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union even attempted to include the Katyn massacre in the list of Nazi crimes at the Nuremberg Tribunal, but the Tribunal held that the Soviet argument was deceptive and rejected that attempt. In 1959, after Stalin’s death, then-KGB chairman Alexander Shelepin even suggested that all files on the Polish victims be destroyed lest they strain relations between the USSR and communist Poland. Finally, exactly 50 years after the crime, Mikhail Gorbachev disclosed the truth, handing over important pertinent documents to his Polish counterpart, Wojciech Jaruzelski. Three years later, President Boris Yeltsin, during his 1993 visit to Poland, paid tribute to the Polish victims by laying wreaths at the Katyn cross in Powaski cemetery in Warsaw.

Failed Hope

In 1994, the Russian Federation and Poland signed an agreement on the mutual maintenance of the burial sites of victims of wars and repressions as well as sites dedicated to the memory of such victims. While the term “burial site” was clear, the agreement did not specify the exact meaning of the terms “repressions” and “sites of memory.” Since 2016, as Russian-Polish disputes have unfolded around sites of memory, this has proven to be particularly sensitive.

In 1996, the construction of the Katyn memorial complex finally began. The Russian government’s decree referred to Katyn as a memorial complex dedicated to “those Soviet and Polish citizens who fell victim of totalitarian repressions.”

The Polish officers, who were wearing Polish military uniforms at the time of their execution, were thus classified as victims not of the Second World War but of Stalin’s terror. This classification, however, did not fully engage with the specific circumstances of the crime. The status of the Polish officers was complicated: although the Soviet Union occupied Polish territory in September 1939, it did not declare war on Poland, so the officers murdered in Katyn were not technically prisoners of war. On the other hand, they were wearing military uniforms at the time of the murder and the Second World War was already underway. Moreover, when the Soviet government attempted to include the “Katyn question” on the agenda of the Nuremberg Tribunal, it referred to the officers as POWs.

The Polish authorities designated the Katyn memorial site as a Polish Military Cemetery. This meant that this memorial site, dedicated to the soldiers killed on Russian territory by the Soviet NKVD as a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, now had the same status as the memory sites devoted to the more than 600,000 Soviet soldiers killed on Polish soil by German troops during the liberation of Poland from Nazi Germany in 1944-45.

The Polish Military Cemetery in Katyn (2000).

Finally, in 2010, in a symbolic recognition of responsibility, the Russian Duma stated that Stalin had ordered his secret police to execute 22,000 Polish army officers and civilians in 1940 (Katyn was just one of at least five sites where Polish officers were executed). 

In 2010, during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the mass murder in Katyn, Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk, as the prime ministers of their respective countries, paid tribute to the victims at the newly opened memorial complex. At the time, it looked like an important step had been taken toward the reconciliation of post-communist Poland and post-Soviet Russia. Putin and Tusk jointly placed a foundation stone of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, an Orthodox church that dominates the entrance to the complex. A copy of the Madonna of Czestochowa, a Polish icon, was placed in the church, apparently as a symbol of Russian-Polish reconciliation.

But the tragic deaths of Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his delegation in a plane crash in Smolensk on April 10, 2010, immediately generated new problems in the relationship between the two countries. Part of Polish society blamed Russia for the crash, referring to it as “Katyn II.” Moreover, there was an increasing clash between rising conservative patriotism in Poland, on the one hand, and burgeoning Russian nationalist sentiment during Putin’s third term that focused on Russia’s greatness, victory in the Second World War, and anti-Western sentiment following the annexation of Crimea, on the other.

"Since the Law and Justice party’s rise to power in Poland in 2015, it has pursued a strongly nationalist policy based on radical revisions of Polish history, including the Second World War and the Holocaust."

Since the Law and Justice party’s rise to power in Poland in 2015, it has pursued a strongly nationalist policy based on radical revisions of Polish history, including the Second World War and the Holocaust. As part of the policy, Poland adopted a new law on the “de-communization of Poland” that has opened the way for removing old communist monuments and memorials, including those dedicated to the soldiers of the Soviet Red Army.

Russian Radicalization

In Russia, the new nationalist trend included the “Russianization” of the memorial site in Katyn. Instead of serving as a site for Russian-Polish reconciliation, as (despite various problems) was the prevailing tendency from the 1990s through the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, the Katyn memorial complex has become a scene for the contestation of radical memories.

Last year, a large monument dedicated to the victims of the Great Terror of 1937-38 was built next to Katyn’s Polish War Cemetery under the supervision of the Russian Military Historical Society, chaired by Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. This step granted belated official recognition to about 8,000 Russian victims of Stalinism from the Smolensk region. Their names were inscribed on several dozen panels on the new memorial. Compared to many other monuments to the victims of the Great Terror, this one is quite impressive. However, in the context of the Katyn memorial complex, the goal of the new monument is not limited to paying tribute to the victims of mass repressions.

"A sign at the memorial entrance reads, "Here rest over 8,000 Soviet and over 4,000 Polish citizens" is sharply at variance with the text on one of the panels inside the memorial site."

A sign at the memorial entrance reads, “Here rest over 8,000 Soviet and over 4,000 Polish citizens.” Yet this is obviously not true: the sign is sharply at variance with the text on one of the panels inside the memorial site, which states that the remains of only a relatively small share of the over 8,000 Soviet victims actually “rest” in Katyn, while the remains of others are found elsewhere in the Smolensk region. In fact, the exact locations of the remains of those executed or who perished in labor camps are rarely known, and the Smolensk region is no exception.

Apparently, the main purpose of this discrepancy is to create the impression that twice as many Soviets were killed in Katyn as Poles, thus turning Katyn into a site of predominantly Russian, rather than Polish, suffering. An attempt at the Russian “ethnicization” of Katyn was made as far back as 2005. The future patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, speaking at Katyn, described it as the “Russian Golgotha” and emphasized that the only possible repentance could be before God and not before other peoples. Thus, the memorial site in Katyn has become an important episode in the process of patriotization of the Gulag memory that I describe in my ongoing project on the memorial sites dedicated to Stalinist terror in present-day Russia.

A view of part of the “Valley of Death,” the site of the mass graves of Smolensk residents who were executed during the Stalin-era political repressions. It opened in 2018.

"The narrative of the museum does not dwell on individual victims, it is focused exclusively on Russia’s suffering throughout the long history of Russian/Soviet relations with Poland."

A strong manifestation of the current Russian confrontation with Poland is found in a new museum opened in Katyn in April 2018. The museum was created under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation with a significant contribution from the Russian Military-Historical Society. The same Society also built the memorial to the Victims of the Great Terror in Katyn, but the two memorial institutions have almost nothing in common. The narrative of the museum does not dwell on individual victims, nor does it condemn the perpetrators of terror. Instead, it is focused exclusively on Russia’s suffering throughout the long history of Russian/Soviet relations with Poland.

The museum’s narrative begins in the early 17th century, during the Time of Troubles, stressing the aggression of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against Russia. (Commonwealth troops invaded Russia and conquered and held Moscow between the years 1610 and 1612.) Another Polish invasion highlighted in the museum took place in the early Soviet period, soon after the end of the First World War. Meanwhile, the occupation of Eastern Poland by the Russian Empire between 1795 and 1918 and the one following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are strongly downplayed. Instead, the museum displays photos showing the Polish population giving a warm welcome to Stalin’s troops in Eastern Poland in September 1939. The annexation of Polish territories is explained as follows: since Poland in fact ceased to exist after the German invasion on September 1, 1939, there was nobody to protect Polish Ukrainian and Belarussian minorities; the Red Army therefore took on this task. In this context, the mass murder of Polish officers in Katyn appears as an act of “historical justice” redressing Polish aggression against Russia rather than as a brutal crime committed by the Soviet communist dictatorship. In 2010, Vladimir Putin, then the Russian Prime Minister, expressed his “private opinion” that the murder of the Polish officers may have been Stalin’s revenge for those Soviet soldiers who died as Polish prisoners in the 1920s.

"Almost all the museum’s explanatory texts are only in Russian, which makes it clear who the target audience is. Meanwhile, the concept of the new museum, remains hidden from non-Russian-speaking visitors."

A whole section of the museum is devoted to praising the post-war cooperation between the USSR and Poland. Obviously, the liberation of Poland from Nazi Germany is the central point of the exhibition, which ends by stressing the huge difference between the ways in which today’s Russia and Poland care for war memorials commemorating the fallen soldiers of each other’s nations. On the Russian side, Vladimir Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church are shown paying tribute to Polish victims; the Polish side is shown as destroying Soviet war memorials and ignoring the fact that without Soviet help, Poland would have ceased to exist. (The Polish narrative, however, claims that the state’s decommunization initiative does not affect the burial sites of Red Army soldiers and is aimed mainly at monuments that were not public initiative but were rather built by Soviet soldiers.)

Almost all the museum’s explanatory texts are only in Russian, which makes it clear who the target audience is. Meanwhile, the concept of the new museum, as well as the Russian patriotic interpretation of the Katyn massacre in general, remains hidden from non-Russian-speaking visitors.

The improvement of the 1990s, when Katyn became a memorial site for the victims of mass murders committed by the Soviet system, may have been not trouble-free, but it still reflected a serious attempt at mutual reconciliation between the Russian Federation and Poland. However, the anti-liberal turn of recent years has halted this trend and set off a highly controversial “war of memories” between these two countries.

The reformatted Katyn memorial reflects the new trend of “patriotization” and de-traumatization of Soviet crimes. The national traumas are politically “instrumentalized,” while killings and human rights violations are trivialized and marginalized. The reformatted memory of the Second World War in Katyn is a manifestation of an increasing top-down convergence of the government policy of nationalism (supported by the Russian Orthodox Church) and communist nostalgia. The memory of terror finds a place there only if it is politically expedient. On the other hand, the dynamic of the past three decades suggests that the general narrative of the Katyn memorial complex can change relatively quickly in response to political developments. Thus, if Russian-Polish relations improve again and the anti-Western discourse that currently dominates Russian foreign policy needs to be modified, the complex may also be readjusted and reformatted. At this point, however, such an eventuality looks very unlikely.


Tomas Sniegon is a Historian and Associate Professor in European Studies at the University of Lund in Sweden. His research focuses on the "memory" of traumatic events in the 20th Century in Central and East European historical cultures.